Greetings from New Haven Connecticut where I will be for the next 5 days teaching a course on spiritual renewal for the Overseas Ministries Study Center. I spent the last few days finishing the manuscript for Gardening with God, which should be available for purchase online tomorrow.
The last reflection I wrote was on organic garden basics, looking at the best practices of organic gardening and considering the parallels to the ways that God works in our lives. Build up the soil and not the plant I wrote, add compost and put down mulch to protect it. Water and weed around the plants to encourage deep roots – not just in one plant but in all of them together. Fertilize sparingly and prune occasionally.
I have been mulling over these words ever since. How does this translate into Christian discipleship? We tend to think that the key to good Christian growth is to focus on individuals, to fertilize the plant rather than soil but maybe it is time that we paid more attention to the communities in which we plant disciples. Perhaps it is time we became better organic gardeners and realized that the best way to grow healthy disciples is by concentrating on the health of the communities of which we are a part. And I am not just talking about the churches that followers of Christ attend and worship as part of, I am talking about the communities in which we live and work and more broadly even the global community of which we are all a part.
I have been feeling a little frustrated recently because most of the books I have read about building healthy Christian community tend to focus on how to build up individuals within the community – how to develop spiritual practices for ourselves, how to discover our spiritual gifts, how to find our place in God’s community.
I wonder what a difference it would make if we focused on building up the whole community together. What if we paid more attention to overcoming the unhealthy practices that destroy our communities, practices like injustice and inequality, oppression and pollution rather than focusing on building up our own lives and ministries? What if we recognized that when one plant suffers because the soil around it is unhealthy, we all suffer?
In my garden I pay a lot more attention to the plants that don’t seem to be thriving than I do to those that are healthy and growing rapidly. These are the ones that need special care from the gardener. I research what kind of soil conditions they thrive in, how much water they need and when they should be fertilized. They are the ones that receive special love and attention. Not surprisingly, as I build up the soil around these weak and vulnerable ones, the healthy plants thrive even more.
Unfortunately in our Christian communities it seems to me that it is the healthy plants – the pastors and teachers, the educated and financially stable, the intact families, those that are able to support and encourage our work and our ministries – that get the most attention and perhaps as a result all of us are not reaching our full potential in Christ.
What would our Christian communities look like if we focused on the weak and the vulnerable in our midst – if we fed the hungry, healed the sick, set the oppressed free and preached the good news of God’s kingdom of abundance and wholeness to the rejected and marginalized… Hmmm maybe it would look like a community of Jesus early followers.
The scripture verse that comes to mind here is Philippians 2: 1-8 which you may like to reflect on as you think about this – and I would love to hear you thought on this. (from NIV)
1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!